Sunday, July 27, 2008

Going to School Thai Style

There is a Thai public school nearby. I haven't seen it, but evidence abounds. Each morning at about 8:00, the loud stern voice of a headmistress is carried via loudspeaker through the area. Apparently, it is not enough to give the announcements of the day and lecture the children about how to be good citizens, but the entire neighborhood in a half mile radius may as well benefit from the messages.

From 7:00-7:30, the main road through the moobahn is clogged with a stream of traffic carrying the young learners to their destination: Motorcycles, bicycles, taxis, private cars, pedestrians, and open trucks packed with blue and white clad children. A unit of police is on hand to attempt to conduct traffic at intersections, all the while blowing on whistles. The spectacle is reversed at 3 PM.

The trucks are a Thai version of a school bus. Obviously, safety standards are not at the same level as in western countries, but the mode is efficient, and drivers have no problems from unruly students: The young scholars are either packed tightly inside, or must cling to whatever handle is available while riding the rear bumper.
Thai schools are in session most of the year. Their longest break is during the hot season, generally all of April. Other week-long breaks and official holidays afford the students (and teachers) numerous breaks throughout the academic year, which begins in May.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Thai Super Store Experience

After a day of moving Kat's belongings and the pets courtesy of a colleague and her husband, I felt able to explore a bit and get my bearings. I have now been in Bangkok five days and am beginning to feel comfortable in the "moobahn." I was taken to the school where I completed more paperwork for the Thai Ministry of Education and received my reimbursement for the flight and relocation allowance. A finance officer helped me to open a bank account and apply for a debit card. What a relief: In just a few days I will be back to worrying about overdrafts, but in another country.

Later (on Day 3) I struck out to buy household goods and headed to "Carre Four," a French version of K Mart. There are also versions of Wal-Mart (Tesco Lotus) and Target (Big C), but Carre Four was closest to home. Although I had been to Carre Four many times in previous years, I had forgotten just how unique it is. I don't think one can be adequately prepared for the experience. You just have to go and have a shopping adventure.

Nearly all of the shopping area is on the second floor, accessed by long slowly moving ramps. Immediately upon reaching the second floor, the customer is confronted by a cacophony of noises and an array of unexpected sights. Along one wall are batteries of ATMs, a UPS store and several travel agents, as well as kiosks of cell phones and gold jewelry. Entering the main sale floor, I was surprised to see several shiny new cars for sale, lined up not far from the checkout counters. I couldn't help but wonder how they got them up to the second floor, let alone how one might drive them away. (Does a clerk scan the auto's code strip with a wand as one drives through?) Electronics was the noisiest of the sections: For some reason Thais consider advertising to be best when it is loud and mind-numbingly repetitive. Placing three or four grating commercial messages next to one another further enhances the moment. It is one of the most annoying affronts to the senses I have ever experienced.

I had no time schedule, as I knew that I would be wandering the aisles for some time to find all that I had on my list. Indeed, I found myself criss-crossing the store in search of mops, brooms, trash cans, drying racks (no dryers in Thailand, of course: It would take longer than hanging clothes in the sun), batteries, soaps, shampoos, shoe racks, extension cords, plug adapters, food storage containers, laundry detergent, toilet paper, all the essentials. I would have taken longer, but I didn't need groceries, patio furniture, beds, appliances, TVs, or monk gifts--there is an entire section devoted to gift boxes, candles, rice bowls and incense one can give to a favorite Buddhist monk. I did buy Campbell's tomato juice, however, and noted on the label that I can get a 5-cent deposit for it in Maine and Hawaii. I found it next to the Jiffy Pop in the organic and western food section. I by-passed the bulk food aisles where relatively small people were easily hefting huge boxes of rice, canned food and bottled water, to name a few. The 12 pack of Thai beer I handed to the checkout clerk was promptly confiscated by a manager ("Sorry Sir, no alcohol sold before five o'clock."). I had a W.C. Fields flash: "We had to survive on water."

As I carefully guided my overloaded cart toward the exit, its wheels locked upon hitting the corrugated steel ramp way. Apparently, the wheels have magnets built in to prevent runaway carts from careening out of control down the long moving ramps, their owners in horrified pursuit. I successfully fought the urge to buy an ice cream cone on the way out, then packed a taxi with my purchases for the ten minute ride to the house. While it is an interesting experience, it is also exhausting. I suspect that visiting a super store once a month will be more than enough for me.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Arrival in Thailand

Sitting in an outdoor Thai restaurant, looking out over the setting sun's rays shimmering on a small lake, I reflect on my first two full days in Bangkok. A breeze offers welcome relief from the sweltering Thai heat, as does the large cold beer that washes down a meal of noodles, peanuts, bean sprouts, egg and shrimp. My feet ache from the constant contact with hard teak and tile floors: They are not used to anything other than carpeting and thick shoe soles that cushion each step, but here in Thailand, one leaves shoes at the door. Tomorrow I plan to relieve the pain with a famous Thai one-hour foot massage near our home.

I've not met anyone who actually enjoys trans-Pacific flights. They are simply endured as best as one can. The airlines do their best, bless them, but free wine with meals and a long list of movies--I watched five between Atlanta and Seoul--is not enough to lull the traveler into believing that he is having fun. Of course, there are usually a number of intriguing people that share the ride and provide moments of entertainment: The American missionary who reads an ancient Bible and does yoga in the aisle (not at the same time--that would really be something to report), the Brazilian actor who repeatedly says in amazement how can any trip take so long, and the Pakistani who nervously glances at the sign in the exit row that says "Emergency seating" before asking to be reassigned. But the flight does eventually end, and fatigue gives way to excitement: People press their faces to the window as the lights of Bangkok pass by and loom closer underneath the plane, ornate temples dotting the landscape.

Emerging from the baggage claim and customs area, I spot a man holding a sign with my name printed on it. He immediately takes charge of my baggage and swiftly packs them into a car and we drive through the light rain to a service hotel where my suite awaits. A basket of bread, juice, peanut butter, jams and dehydrated soups are on the table next to a tourist guide and school brochure, neatly tied with a golden ribbon, and there is milk and water in the refrigerator, all compliments of the school. After a much-needed shower, I blissfully fall into a heavy sleep, my stomach happy with the arrival of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I awake to find that I had, surprisingly, slept for six hours. Normally, jet lag hits me hard, but this time I decided to try the 18 hour fast before the flight, and I must say that it is the first time that I have not felt the ragged wave of confusion and disrupted sleep patterns, something that has always happened before on each of my 13 or so previous flights between Bangkok and the U.S.

A rental agent picks me up, but not before I have had a complimentary (again, from the school) buffet breakfast, a swim, and a short jaunt to do some ATM banking. the agent, Sak (Thankfully, although Thais have quite long formal names that are unfamiliar to westerners, they all have one syllable nick names), drives me to the "moobahn" or village as it is called where we will be living. This "village" has 4,000 houses, more than 200 shops, and several lakes scattered throughout. We stop briefly where I am showed the place to buy vegetables, fresh seafood, fruit and other groceries, as well as the ubiquitous 7-11 convenience stores (there are two only 2 blocks apart). I note veterinarians, restaurants, hardware shops, noodle stands, a Chinese language school, a pre-school, post office and many massage parlors. I buy some ready-made Thai food (and later return via motorcycle to buy a wok--A side note: There were parts of chicken I had not seen as part of a meal before). Eventually we pull up to our house and I am given the grand tour, shown how to turn on the water and propane, and am given a handful of unmarked keys, a Thai version of a Chinese puzzle that will no doubt keep me frustrated for days. Every door in the house locks and has its own key.

To end the day, I take a taxi to Kat's apartment, a 20 minute ride, and surprise our very confused pets who apparently don't hold a grudge: They are very happy to see me. We fall asleep together on the bed, serenaded by choruses of frogs and crickets, and, as it is the monsoon season, a deluge complete with thunder, which sends a beautiful breeze that washes over us. The next day is moving day. I'm getting much too good at it.

Friday, July 18, 2008

In Transition

Sitting at a free internet lounge in Seoul (Free? A concept U.S. airports do not understand), awaiting my flight to Bangkok. I am between countries, seemingly suspended in time and space. The trip is a metaphor for this point in my life, half-way between two worlds. Leaving a familiar, comfortable and largely predictable life for one full of unknowns and great potential for challenges, professional and otherwise. 

Although I am returning to a place that is not unfamiliar, I suspect that despite my openness toward Thailand, and anticipating the famous Thai hospitality, I will always be an outsider--a "farang"--who is taught innumerable lessons about living in a culture that is not of my upbringing. It is probably much like being adopted as an older child: Grateful for the acceptance, but never quite sure if I can fit in.

Yet, in a strange and inexplicable way I look forward to these upcoming challenges as exciting as they are unnerving. Once in a while we can use a good rocking of our comfy world. It gives a certain zest to life.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Solitude For Now

While I am excited about moving again to Bangkok and experiencing its culture, quirks, charm, and human-powered energy, I know that I must be able to find an inner calm at times when it can be overwhelming. Being on the Maine coast is a place that will help me learn to do just that. I calm my mind and spirit by spending time here, a place that is in harmony and invites synchronization with nature's rhythms. After only a few days, it is as if I am on a high: Gliding without regard to time, letting all aspects of civilization fall to the bottom of my priority list. As Kat puts it so well, "Nature is a drug; a good drug."

There is a park next to our land where it is impossible to not appreciate its aching beauty. Sitting on ancient granite, watching the gulls, eagles and ospreys glide into and out of view, smelling the salt air, and napping to the chugs of lobster boats is intoxicating. About an hour's drive away is Acadia National Park that draws millions of visitors, but here in similar surroundings, it is unusual to find more than five cars parked in the lot overlooking the rocky coast and outlying islands. Come to think of it, the lot won't hold more than five cars. One wanders through blueberry bushes and spruce woods to the rocks, where the biggest decision to make is how long to stay.

In a few days I will be headed to Thailand, a country with its own coastal beauty. These two places Kat and I hold dear, and we find ourselves returning again and again. Each person finds his or her own paradise in some part of the world. It is time for us to now spend extended time in our two very special places.